Monday, November 22, 2010

Reaching Out to Africa’s Descendants

With the growing interest among Africa’s Diaspora in reaching back to the Motherland, the question arises: is Africa reaching out to its descendants worldwide?

The answer is yes. As we reach out to Africa, many on the continent are reaching out to us, and there is a history behind these efforts.

Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, as President of Ghana, invited members of the African Diaspora to join in the efforts to build his newly independent nation in the late 1950s. The late Pan-African leader W.E.B. DuBois became a Ghanaian citizen and is buried there. Many other Diasporans followed him to Ghana and live there today, although citizenship has come hard for them despite their length of stay. This reluctance to extend citizenship to members of the Diaspora belies the “Joseph Project,” an invitation to members of the Diaspora to reconnect with the land of their ancestors.

A decade later, Mwalimu Julius Nyrere, President of Tanzania, extended an invitation to members of the Diaspora to come to Tanzania and participate in building his new nation. In addition to the leaders of African liberations movements, Tanzania became a beacon for Diasporans, especially Black Panthers, Vietnam War resisters and others who felt the need to leave the United States. Many of those who relocated to Tanzania still reside there. Now Tanzania is exploring whether to allow dual citizenship for Diasporans who want to continue their ties to the land of their birth.

An expanding list of African countries are offering or considering offering citizenship to members of the Diaspora, including Cameroon, Gabon, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. In fact, Sierra Leone provides an example of the enthusiasm of the people for a reconnection with the Diaspora and the obstacles that have prevented the flood gates to dual citizenship from being opened.

Research on the descendants of slaves brought to America from West Africa has long provided solid evidence of ties as exemplified by similarities in traditions, culture, language and even food. The Gullah people of South Carolina and Georgia have long been known to have come from Sierra Leone. James Madison University Professor Joseph Opala was instrumental in bringing 13 Gullah community leaders to Sierra Leone in 1989 for a “Gullah Homecoming.” A week of national celebrations ensued. Still, Sierra Leoneans wanted to see a Gullah family who could prove descent from their country.

Opala researched the matter, and eight years later, he was able to bring Mary Moran from Harris Neck, Georgia, who sang a song in the Mende language she learned from her mother. When a Mende woman in one village recognized the song, it connected the Moran family to that village. The “Moran Family Homecoming” was indeed a miracle caused by Opala’s dogged research. Yet Sierra Leoneans wanted to identify the descendants of a specific person taken from their land. Opala likened the challenge to “winning the lottery three times in a row.”

Great research trumped luck in this case. Opala, with the help of writer Edward Ball, combed through slave ship records and slave auction accounts and found references to a young girl given the name “Priscilla,” who had arrived in Charles Town, South Carolina, in 1956. Through plantation records, they were able to trace her descendants to the Martin family of Charleston, South Carolina. The paper trail from Sierra Leone to America was remarkably intact, and when Priscilla’s descendant, Thomalind Martin Polite, visited Sierra Leone in 2004, there was no doubt where she was from and to whom she was connected.

While there are Africans whose shame over their part in the slave trade lead them to reject the reconnection with the descendants of those taken from their land, many other are overjoyed at having ancestral ties confirmed. Nevertheless, African societies tend to be family oriented. Those who live in the cities are still usually expected to be able to tell which village their families came from. This pride in heritage is at once a bond that strengthens African society and a barrier to newcomers.

Until recently, it was often impossible to make such a connection. The family of Alex Haley was able to make such a specific connection due to the deliberate transmission of his family’s African history through the generations. Many Diaspora families are not able to do so with specificity because not all slave traders and slave owners kept good records and not all families managed to maintain an oral history as accurate as the Haleys.

A desire to identity with an African country only works when that country accepts you without requiring you to document your linkage. Not even DNA evidence would be sufficient if a strict lineage test is used as it had been in Sierra Leone. Evidently, that country’s government has accepted that specific ties can be created from the blood connection established by DNA testing. On the country’s 50th anniversary of its independence on April 27, 2011, dozens of members of its Diaspora will be given citizenship.

If a blood tie to a specific family cannot be established, then we can make an adopted tie. For too long, time and distance have divided us. We must now be creative enough to make the dotted lines of lineage into solid lines of acceptance. Family, after all, is really about accepting one another as kin whether we have all the paperwork or not.


  1. I look forward to going back to the home of my ancestors. 2011 will be the homecoming for my family, for too long we have forgotten about our home in Africa. We have focused on building the home of the oppressors, now it is time to rebuild our home.

  2. I so want to be apart of this,how do I find a way in Sierra Leone.I'm in a country that tolerates me, Id like to take my chances in AFRICA.